11 Remarkable Transgender People from History

11 Remarkable Transgender People from History

Natasha sheldon - October 8, 2017

The term ‘Transgender’ covers a broad spectrum of people whose sense of gender identity does not conform to that of their birth sex. Columbia University psychiatrist, John F Oliven coined the phrase in 1965. Professor Oliven believed that the terminology for gender-fluid people in his day was restrictive, as not all transgender people expressed their identity in the same way.

Some switched between male and female characteristics. Others wished to change their gender identity permanently with medical assistance. Many cross-dressed and then there were those of no determinate sex. To brand all these people as ‘transsexual’ was misleading. A more all-encompassing term was required.

‘Transgender’ may be a recent word – but the concept is as old as human history. There have always been people who, either openly or in secret have lived their lives as members of a gender they were not born into, often risking ridicule at best- at worst, persecution.

It was not until the twentieth century that society became more aware of transgender people, when the first brave pioneers took the often-dangerous move, not only to live according to their sexual identity but also to change their bodies to become it. Here are just eleven remarkable figures from history who can be defined as transgender.

11 Remarkable Transgender People from History
Elagabalus. Google Images


Many Roman emperors led notorious lifestyles, but Emperor Elagabalus was one who appears to be transgender. Born in Emesa in Syria, Varius Avitus Bassianus as Elagabalus was initially known, reigned from 218 until 222 AD. While in power, the teenage emperor enjoyed bisexual relationships and cross-dressing. Sources also hint that he may not have been comfortable with his birth gender.

When the head Praetorian Macrinus murdered Emperor Caracalla in 217AD, Caracalla’s Aunt and Elagabalus’s grandmother, Julia Maesa began to take steps to restore the Severan dynasty. She removed Elagabalus from Rome to the safety of Emesa, while she plotted with senators and soldiers loyal to Caracalla to remove the new emperor and restore the Severans. To seal the deal, she made Elagabalus’s mother swear he was Caracalla’s son. This lie cemented the alliance, and in 218AD, Maesa’s allies overthrew Macrinus and Elagabalus became Emperor.

Adopting Caracalla’s official name: Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Augustus, the fourteen-year-old emperor began to make his mark- in entirely the wrong way. He suffixed his official title with ‘Elagabalus’, the Latinized version of the Syrian sun god, Elah Gabal, of whom he was a hereditary priest. Elagabalus then made Elah Gabal the new head of the Roman pantheon- viciously enforcing his worship. The teenage emperor was crass and ineffectual- and his reputation was made worse by his private peccadillos.

According to his contemporary, the historian Cassius Dio, Elagabalus loved nothing more than dressing up as a woman. Decked in wigs, makeup, and fashionable frocks, he made a sexual nuisance of himself around Rome- and the imperial palace. He married five times- once to a male athlete called Aurelius Zoticus.

But his most enduring relationship was with his charioteer, a slave named Hierocles. Herodian, another contemporary, recalled how the emperor “delighted to be called the mistress, the wife, the queen of Hierocles.” He also describes how Elagabalus offered money to any physician who could give him female genitalia.

In 222 AD, the Praetorian Guard assassinated the eighteen-year-old Elagabalus an event arranged by his grandmother as a form of dynastic damage limitation. His cousin, Severus Alexander was installed as emperor in his place. Some historians have suggested that the accounts of Dio and Herodian were designed to damn his memory. However, Elagabalus did that well enough as the emperor without salacious details from his private life. It seems, from the particulars of the descriptions that Elagabalus was indeed frustrated by his gender.

11 Remarkable Transgender People from History
The Chevalier D’Eon by Thomas Stewart. Google Images

Chevalier D’Eon

Charles-Genevieve Louis August Timothee D’Eon de Beaumont or the Chevalier D’Eon was born on October 5, 1728, to noble but impoverished parents. After a brief stint in the French civil service, in 1756 D’Eon took up an exciting new career as a spy. His new employment was in a secret organization known as “The King’s Secret” – a group answerable directly to the King himself. D’Eon was perfect for life as a spy. He was a good actor. He also had a very androgynous appearance- something that served him well during a mission to the court of Emperoress Elizabeth of Russia.

Ongoing Anglo-French hostilities meant only women and children were allowed across the land border into Russia. So D’Eon disguised himself as a woman. He succeeded in crossing, and after a time as a maid of honor at court and a stint in the French embassy, he returned to France in 1760. D’Eon then joined the dragoons and fought in the Seven Years War. He obtained the title of ‘Chevalier‘ for his part in the peace process and, finally, the French government sent him to London as French Ambassador.

However, D’Eon became involved in an argument with a rival that quickly escalated and ended with him threatening to expose “The Kings Secret.” His actions left him exiled in England and was only able to negotiate a return home after the death of Louis XV. After agreeing to hand over papers from his days as a spy, D’Eon returned to France- dressed as a woman.

Madame Campan stated in her memoirs that D’Eon adopted feminine clothing to fulfill a condition of his return. The disguise was meant to hide him from those he offended. However, London society had already speculated about D’Eon’s gender- something he had refused to settle. Either way, D’Eon’s return to France was anything but discrete. He made a nuisance of himself demanding to be publicly acknowledged as a woman, claiming he had only been registered as a boy so his parents could claim an inheritance.

He lived the last thirty-three years of his life as a woman. He survived the French revolution, alive but impoverished. After the new government refused his offer to lead a female division of French soldiers against the Hapsburgs, he ended his day’s lodging in Southampton, England. He died on May 21, 1810. Doctors found that he had “male organs in every respect perfectly formed” but some feminine attributes such as ‘rounded limbs‘ and breasts that were “remarkably full.” His sexual ambiguity coined the phrase “Eonism” which was for a time used to describe those with transgender characteristics.

11 Remarkable Transgender People from History
Photograph of We’wha. Google Images


Many cultures accept transgender members of their society. One was the Zuni tribe of New Mexico. The Zuni had always recognized a third gender, which was known as Lhamana or the “two-spirited”. Lhamana were male by birth but were believed to blend both male and female characteristics. They were identified in early childhood and then fully accepted and integrated into the tribe, combining male and female clothing and roles.

The Zuni first encountered white settlers in 1849. Both parties discovered they had enemies in common: the Navajos and Apaches. So the Zuni allied themselves with the colonists and agreed to help them acquire Navajo and Apache land. We’wha was born in this very year. Elders identified him as Lhamana at around three or four. The males of the tribe initiated him with manhood ceremonies around twelve, but he was also taught female tasks such as cooking, grinding corn and making ceremonial pottery.

In 1864, the Zuni returned to some of their old tribal lands and We’wha became a farmer, as well as taking over some of his aunt’s domestic duties. When the first white missionaries arrived to live with the Zuni in 1877, he offered himself as a domestic help to the wife of the Minister, Mr. Ealy. He also worked as a laundress to the settlers. The soldiers at the fort preferred “the men wearing female attire” to do their washing “on account of their strength and endurance.”

Two years later, anthropologist Matilda Cox Stevenson arrived at the settlement and befriended We’wha. Strangely, she claimed she did not know her new friend was a man until 1904-eight years after We’wha’s death. However, We’wha made quite an impression on her. She described him as “the strongest character and the most intelligent of the Zuni tribe.” Stevenson marveled at how We’wha’s word was law, and despite his female role, his anger was feared by women- and men.

Stevenson took We’wha to Washington DC and introduced the Lhamana to American society as an Indian princess. We’wha lived there with her for six months. However, once he returned home, the accord between Zuni and Americans began to disintegrate. The Zuni revolted, and We’wha and five other leaders spent a month in prison for witchcraft. We’wha eventually died of heart failure in 1896 while attending a religious festival. He was 47.

11 Remarkable Transgender People from History
Karl M Baer. Google Images

Karl M. Baer

Karl Baer was born on May 20, 1885, as Martha Baer, the daughter of a German Jewish family from Arolsen, Germany. Although the midwife declared the new Baby Baer to be a girl, she privately confided to Martha’s father that his daughter’s body had “such strange characteristics that she had no way of determining the gender.” However a doctor confirmed Martha to be a girl, and so it was as a girl her parents her raised- until in 1906 Martha became the first person to undergo sex-change surgery.

Childhood was uncomfortable for Baer. As he put it quite simply later in life: “I was born as a boy and raised as a girl.” At puberty, Baer did not develop a woman’s body. Despite not feeling feminine, Baer became heavily involved in women’s rights- perhaps as a direct result of his experience of life as a woman. After studying political economy and sociology, he became a social worker and a suffragette and joined the international Jewish organization, B’nai Brith in 1904.

At the same time, Baer finally began to live as a man, smoking cigars, drinking beer and acting in a masculine way. This behavior did not look odd at all as Baer did not look like a woman. He had male features, facial hair, and a deep voice. Not everyone could tolerate this male behavior and appearance, however, and Baer was sent home from an assignment in Galicia, Spain one year early because of ‘her’ insistence on dressing and behaving like a man.’

Then, in 1906, Baer was knocked over by a tram, and the medical staff in hospital noted his ‘unusual’ anatomy. The hospital put the patient in touch with Magnus Hirschfeld, a doctor and sexologist who immediately diagnosed Baer as “a man who was mistakenly identified as a woman”. That same year and in the same hospital, Baer began to have surgery to correct his erroneous sexual features. The hospital issued him with a medical certificate confirming his new gender, and on January 8, 1907, a court ratified Karl Baer’s identity as a man.

Karl Baer married twice and for some years held official posts in B’nai Brith. With the help of Hirschfeld, he wrote a semi-fictional memoir ” “Man’s Years as a Young Girl”. However, with the rise of the Nazis, Baer’s life in Germany came to an end. In 1937, he was arrested and tortured but then released and allowed to emigrate to Israel in 1938. There, he worked as an accountant and insurance agent, married again and died anonymously in 1956.

11 Remarkable Transgender People from History
Alan L Hart. Google Images

Alan L Hart

Alan Hart was the first female to male gender transition in American history. Born as Lucille on October 4, 1890, Hart and her mother moved to his grandparent’s farm in Oregon when he was two. There, the young Hart found he much preferred dressing as a boy and playing with her male cousins to girl’s games. Her grandparents tolerated and accepted this and while on the farm, Hart was free to be himself.

However, once at school, Hart had to express himself as a female. When he finally began to write, in school and for local publications, he chose a male pseudonym and shied away from traditional female subjects.

In 1917, Hart obtained his medical degree- as a woman. Sympathetic staff suffixed his internal records with his chosen name ‘Robert”. However, to the outside world, he was Dr. Lucille Hart, leaving Hart with no choice but to present as a woman for employment. However, Hart was still looking for a way to be ‘himself’. He approached Dr. Joshua Gilbert of the University of Oregon and asked him what could be done to stop menstruation and remove any possibility of pregnancy.

Gilbert, after accepting Hart was not mentally ill, determined that Hart was primarily male and to continue living as a woman would be detrimental to his well-being. So he approved the first-ever hysterectomy of a healthy womb and Hart had procedure over the Christmas 1917-18 vacation.

It was sufficient to allow Hart to change his sexual identity and name from female to male. Hart did, however, keep the middle initial ‘L’ in memory of Lucille. The identity change allowed Hart to marry Inex Stark later in the year. Hart then settled down with his wife and a new medical practice.

However, he was outed as transgender, and the couple was forced to move. Inex eventually left Hart, and in 1925 they divorced, with the court issuing a no-contact order against him. Later that year, he re-married to Edna Ruddick, who proved to be a more durable partner. After the Second World War, the development of synthetic testosterone enabled Hart to grow facial hair and deepen his voice. Alan Hart continued to forge a career in medical research, pioneering the use of X-ray in the treatment of TB, as well as a successful second career writing novels. He died in 1962.

11 Remarkable Transgender People from History
Dora Richter. Google Images

Dora Richter

German Dora Richter was the first person in the world to complete the physical transition from male to female. Born in the Erzgebirge region of Germany in 1891 and baptized Rudolph, Richter displayed a tendency from early childhood, to: “act and carry on in a feminine way.” She expressed distaste for male clothing and at the age of six, reputedly tried to tourniquet her penis. After this, Rudolph’s family allowed her to live as female as much as possible.

However, adult life was cruel. Richter worked as a male waiter or cook during the summer months in various Berlin hotels. But when autumn came, she lived as a woman. This habit led to her being arrested and imprisoned several times for cross-dressing. Eventually, Richter encountered a liberal judge, who instead of imprisoning her, referred her to Magnus Hirschfeld, a Jewish-German doctor at the Institute for Sexual Research in Dresden- the doctor who had already helped Kurt Baer make the transition from female to male.

At the institute, Dr. Hirschfeld helped Richter obtain a permit to wear women’s clothes and as it was difficult for crossdressers to find a job, employed her as domestic help. Richter became one of five such employees at the Institute who were treated entirely as women. Dr. Levy-Lenz who joined the institute in 1925, recalled how the ‘girls’ would sit together “peacefully knitting and sewing and singing old folk songs. These were, in any case, the best, most hardworking and conscientious domestic workers we ever had. Never ever did a stranger visiting us notice anything…

In 1922, Dr. Erwin Gohrbandt of the University of Berlin medically castrated Richter. In the meantime, Dr. Hirschfeld began to investigate the effects of reducing her testosterone levels. He published details of Richter’s transformation in his work on gender studies, Geschlechtskunde. Dr. Felix Abraham also carefully monitored the changes in Richter.

He noted how: “Her castration had the effect – albeit not very extensive – of making her body become fuller, restricting her beard growth, making visible the first signs of breast development, and giving the pelvic fat pad… a more feminine shape.”

Nine years later, Dora Richter was finally given a vagina after Dr. Levy-Lenz finally removed her penis. The operation was the world’s first-ever vaginoplasty and a complete success. However, Richter’s new life was to be short-lived. In 1933, the Nazis destroyed Dr. Hirschfeld’s Institute– and many of its records. They sent the surviving residents to concentration camps but killed many others in the initial attack. Dora Richter fell into this latter group.

11 Remarkable Transgender People from History
Lili Elbe, 1926. Google Images

Lili Elbe

As the subject of the film, The Danish GirlLile Elbe is probably one of the most famous transgender figures of recent times. Lile would never have achieved fulfillment as a woman if it had not been for Dora Richter’s pioneering transition. She also may have never manifested at all, if her original self, Einar Wegener had not acted as a model for his artist wife.

Einar Wegener was born in 1882 in Denmark. He met his wife Gerda at Art College and the pair later married. Einar became a landscape artist, and Gerda painted illustrations of fashionably dressed women for Paris magazines. One day, one of Gerda’s regular models failed to turn up. So after some hard persuasion, her husband agreed to stand-in. The effect on Einar was instantaneous. “I cannot deny, strange as it may sound, that I enjoyed myself in this disguise, ” he later wrote, ” I liked the feel of soft women’s clothing, I felt very much at home in them from the first moment.”

Styling himself as his sister ‘Lili”, Gerda and Einar began to appear at Paris balls. Their married life continued in this vein for the next fifteen years. Mentally, it became a strain for Einar, who felt two people, a man and a woman, inhabited his body. Einar and Lili even had different personalities. Einar “steady and sensible” while Lili was “superficial, thoughtless and flighty.”

By 1930, Lili had won the battle. “I am finished,” Einar wrote “Lili has known this for a long time. That’s how matters stand. And consequently, she rebels more vigorously every day.” Suicidal, he consulted doctors who dismissed him as gay or ‘hysterical’. Then he met a doctor who had heard about the Dora Richter case. The doctor referred Einar to the Dresden Institute, and Lili was finally born. Surgeons removed Einar’s penis and testicles and ovaries grafted inside his body.

In the meantime, Lili divorced Gerda. She even gave up painting as a vestige of her old life. She began a relationship with Claude Lejeune, a French art dealer and started the first steps of her next creative project: a child. In 1932, Lili had a womb transplant. However, her body rejected it and an infection developed. By September, Lili was dead.

She seemed to know death was imminent but had no regrets as she wrote to a friend: “I, Lili, am vital and have a right to life I have proved by living for 14 months. It may be said that 14 months is not much, but they seem to me like a whole and happy human life.”

11 Remarkable Transgender People from History
Christine Jorgensen. Google Images

Christine Jorgensen

Christina Jorgensen was not the first American to have a sex change as is often claimed, but she was the first transgender person to announce her gender reassignment publicly- and to fight to make the transgender phenomenon better understood. Jorgenson was born in 1926 as George William Jorgensen, the second son of a Bronx carpenter. George was a shy, frail, blond, little boy who avoided rough games and fights. Jorgenson explained in later interviews that her childhood was happy. However, the onset of puberty led to the feeling she was a woman in a man’s body.

After graduating from high school in 1945, Jorgensen joined the US army and became a clerk. After her honorable discharge, having heard about European pioneers of gender reassignment surgery, she decided to make the transition from male to female. In 1950, aged 24, Jorgenson began taking estrogen under the supervision of Dr. Christian Hamburg. She chose her new Christian name in his honor. Then, in 1951, she obtained permission to start reassignment procedures in Copenhagen, Denmark.

The surgery transformed Jorgenson physically and mentally. She sent pictures of her new self back home to America with notes saying: “Remember the shy, miserable person who left America? Well, that person is no more and, as you can see, I’m in marvelous spirits.” When she returned home in 1955, her new outgoing self, coped well with the publicity certain tabloids stirred, up with, sensationalist headlines such as: “Ex-Gi Becomes Blond Beauty” and ‘Dear Mum and Dad, Son Wrote, I Have Now Become Your Daughter.”

After completing her surgery in the states, Jorgensen launched herself as an advocate for transgender people, speaking on radio and TV as well as on university campuses in the 1970s and 80s. The shy little blond boy was indeed gone. Jorgenson also became an actress and nightclub entertainer, often singing the song “I enjoy being a Girl” and inventing her own character “Superwoman” when Warner Communications demanded she cease dressing in a Wonder Woman costume in her nightclub act. She died in 1989 of bladder and lung cancer, having, as she put it given the sexual revolution “a good swift kick in the pants.”

11 Remarkable Transgender People from History
Michael Dillon. Google Images

Michael Dillon

Michael Dillon was born Laura Maud Dillon on May 1, 1915, the second child of Robert Dillon, heir to the Baronetcy of Lismullen. Dillon never felt comfortable as a girl. He disliked women’s clothing and excelled at sports not typically associated with females of the era. When at St Anne’s College, Oxford, he became president of the women’s boat club and won a university sporting blue for rowing.

After graduation, Dillon took a research job in Bristol. But his feelings of discomfort did not abate. In 1939, he consulted a local doctor, Dr. George Foss, who was using testosterone to treat extreme menstrual bleeding. Dillon asked for treatment to stop his periods altogether. Foss referred Dillon to a psychiatrist- who duly spread the tale all around Bristol. Dillon was forced to flee the city to avoid the scandal.

Dillon then worked as a mechanic, tow truck driver, and firewatcher during the Second World War. While on fire duty, he suffered an attack of hypoglycemia that hospitalized him. However, quite by chance, this allowed him to make the acquaintance of a sympathetic doctor and one of the world’s first plastic surgeons. The doctor performed a double mastectomy on Dillon and gave him a note so that he could become Laurence Michael Dillon.

Dillon’s surgeon recommended Dr. Harold Gillies, a specialist in genital reconstruction work as the best person to give him a penis. Gillies agreed- once he had dealt with his backlog of injured soldiers needed reconstruction work. In the meantime, Dillon enrolled in medical school.

Between 1946 and 1949, while still studying, Dillon underwent thirteen gender reassignment surgeries. He also wrote the first book about transgender identity: Self: A Study in Endocrinology and Ethics in 1946 which stated: “where the mind cannot be made to fit the body, the body should be made to fit, approximately at any rate, to the mind.”

Dillon was still restricted, however. He cultivated a misogynistic persona to put off girls as he did not want to be involved with a woman because he could not give them children. In 1951, after qualifying, he joined the navy as a ship’s doctor. However, he was forced to flee to India soon after, because of a discrepancy between Debrett’s Peerage (which listed him as a male) and Burkes Peerage (which referred to him as a female) led to the unveiling of his secret.

In India, Dillon found peace, as a Buddhist physician named Jivaka and wrote books on this subject. He died at the age of 47 when he was forced to leave India because of an expired visa.

11 Remarkable Transgender People from History
Roberta Cowell. Google Images

Roberta Cowell

Roberta Cowell was the first British transgender woman to undergo gender reassignment. She was born Robert Marshall Cowell in 1918, one of three children of Major General Sir Ernest Cowell, a prominent surgeon. At first glance, Robert seemed an average boy. At school, he was an enthusiastic member of the school’s motor club and at sixteen became an apprentice aircraft engineer. In 1936, he took his love of all things mechanical further, studying for an engineering degree and starting to race in several Grande Prix.

Cowell’s gender uncertainty revealed itself during the Second World War when she served as a British fighter pilot. By then married, she undertook several raids before being shot down and captured by the Germans. After two escape attempts, Cowell was moved to the prisoner of war camp Stalag Luft 1. In the camp, many of the men indulged in same-sex relationships; something Cowell avoided. She began to become paranoid about being seen as feminine and would not even play female parts in plays.

Once back home and demobbed, Cowell returned to motor racing and business. By now, she was suffering from depression and trauma. In 1948, she separated from her wife. After seeking help, the second of two psychiatrists helped her to discover how her “unconscious mind was predominantly female” and “feminine side of my nature, which all my life I had known of and severely repressed, was very much more fundamental and deep-rooted than I had supposed.”

By 1950, Cowell was taking estrogen, but still living as a man. Then she read Michael Dillon’s “Self: A Study in Endocrinology and Ethics“. The two became friends, and Cowell realized there was nothing wrong with changing her body to match the sex she identified as. Dillon performed Cowell’s initial castration, and then Robert officially became Roberta, completing her transition with a vaginoplasty in 1951.

Although Cowell enjoyed some publicity, she dropped out of the public eye after writing her autobiography. Then, in 1972, she reappeared when she gave an interview to justify her gender reassignment. Cowell explained it was perfectly acceptable to do so in cases like hers, as she had a chromosomal abnormality, XX male syndrome. However, in the interview she was less than sympathetic to other transgender men seeking to change sex, claiming if they had standard XY chromosomes reassignment surgery, would turn them into ‘freaks‘.

11 Remarkable Transgender People from History
The Presentation after wedding Nov 14th, 1952 Alford Public Hall. Wm McDonald, Sir Ewan and Lady Forbes (Dr Sempill and wife), Mrs Mc Ewan (minister’s wife, Kildrummy). Sir Ewan is the centre, in a kilt. Google Images.

Sir Ewan Forbes

Sir Ewan Forbes of Craigievar, the 11th Baronet, was born Elizabeth Forbes-Sempill on September 6, 1912. At birth, Forbes’s sex was hard to determine with certainty because he was intersex. His parents decided to designate him as a girl because it seemed the best option for him. However, as Forbes grew up, it was clear this was a mistake.

Forbes preferred to play with his male cousins rather than his sister and dressed in boy’s clothes. He later recorded how he hated being made to dress up for social occasions in grand dresses. He even refused to be sent away to a girl’s school, so his parents had to educate him at home until he was old enough to attend a co-educational institute in Dresden.

After traveling Europe for a time, Forbes underwent one final humiliation- his ‘coming out’ as a society debutante in the late 1920’s. Then, after more travel, he decided to study medicine-which he self-funded as his father refused to pay for his further education, declaring there was more than enough for him to do on the family estate. In 1945, Forbes qualified- and finally began to live as a man.

By 1952, he had re-registered as a man and changing his name. A press release revealed that this strange change of gender was all due to “…a ghastly mistake. I was carelessly registered as a girl in the first place, but of course, that was forty years ago… the doctors in those days were mistaken, too … I have been sacrificed to prudery and the horror which our parents had about sex.

A month after his formal change of name and gender, Forbes married his housekeeper of five years Isabella Mitchell. However, in 1965, his elder brother died- meaning Forbes was now heir to the Baronetcy and a large estate. One of his male cousins challenged the inheritance, on the grounds of Forbes’ original gender. The case was held in closed court to save the family embarrassment but eventually found in Forbes’ favor because the initial determination of his sex was faulty. Ironically, as Forbes never had any children himself, his troublesome cousin eventually inherited his title and lands on his death in 1991.


Sources For Further Reading:

History Collection – 16 Remarkable Historical Figures who were Transgender

Chicago Tribune – The Speedy Evolution of The Term Transgender

History UK – Chevalier D’eon And Gender Non-Conformity in the 18th Century

Them – How This 18th Century French Spy Came Out as Trans

BBC News – Christine Jorgensen: 60 Years of Sex Change Ops

Jalopnik – Fighter Pilot, Racing Driver, Prisoner of War, Transgender Pioneer: The Incredible Story of Roberta Cowell

The Independent – ‘It’s Easier to Change A Body Than To Change A Mind’: The Extraordinary Life And Lonely Death Of Roberta Cowell